Co-op positions unfilled at U of O, Carleton
Allyshia Sewdat started programming when she was in high school, and it didn't take long to realize that she had found her career.
"It was apparent to me that computer science and tech in general was a good gateway to a variety of applications," says the fourth-year University of Ottawa computer science co-op student. "Tech is so applicable to anything and everything."
At the height of the tech boom, Ms. Sewdat would have been graduating alongside more than 200 other local students in IT fields such as computer engineering, electrical engineering and software engineering.
But the city is currently facing a shortage of qualified IT graduates, with dozens of co-op positions going unfilled as the industry struggles to rebuild its image.
In 2001, 203 University of Ottawa students applied for co-op in an IT program. In 2002, that number dropped by 15 per cent to 172, and went further downhill from there. By 2007, only 36 students applied for a co-op position - down 82 per cent from 2001.
That number has slowly begun to creep upwards again, reaching 57 admissions in 2011, but it is nowhere near its status from a decade previous.
Not all students apply for co-op, and 734 students were enrolled in an IT program as of fall 2011. But Marc-André Daoust, associate director of co-op programs at the U of O, says he's worried about the low enrolment levels. He says he fears it's a hangover from the tech crash in Ottawa at the turn of the millennium.
"Many of these students may have seen their parents go through the IT crash," he says. "They know it's a volatile field. Perhaps some of them worry that yes, it's strong right now, but what will it look like in five or 10 years?"
Ms. Sewdat says she's heard about the tech crash time and time again, and agrees it's keeping some students away.
"You hear about a lot of new innovations, new companies, but you also hear these horror stories of layoffs and uncertainty," she says, citing the troubles at RIM, Adobe and Nortel as examples. "Given the nature of the tech industry, you could have a stable job one day and then not the next."
The irony is that there are currently more IT jobs than students. For every student there are about five co-op placements, while many programs struggle to keep the ratio at one to one. This means that IT students can afford to be choosy, and co-op placement employers must work to make themselves attractive to students.
This issue isn't exclusive to the U of O. Across the city, Gilles LeBlanc, manager of the career management centre at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, says the shortage of IT students has been an issue at Carleton for the past seven years. It's not uncommon to have 10 co-op placement postings for every student.
"It's a shame because the one area that's banging on our door is the one we have very few students in," he says. "I spend a good chunk of my time explaining to people why we can't fill the jobs."
Potentially part of the issue is "the nerd factor," as Mr. LeBlanc puts it. A prevailing stereotype conjures up an image of a programmer sitting in front of a screen, punching out code all day long - which is frequently far from reality.
That's why Sprott is doing everything in its power to eliminate this perception and give students the chance to experience the true essence of IT.
Students have the option of taking a concentration in IT courses without committing to a major or even a minor. The school has hosted events and panels of alumni talking about their experiences and advertised that its co-op placement rate is 100 per cent. Nothing has really worked.
"I've been beating my head on this one for 10 years," Mr. LeBlanc says. It doesn't make sense, he adds, that students so in touch with new technology wouldn't want to head into the fields that develop it.
While both Mr. LeBlanc and Mr. Grant say they know other universities across the country face the same challenge, Algonquin College offers a glimmer of hope.
Andrew Pridham, the academic chair of Algonquin's information and communications technology department, says that while the program's numbers did decrease following the tech bust, the college has been able to increase its enrolment rates by around 15 per cent each year.
Currently, Algonquin sees almost double the number of applications it did back in 2006.
"We're in growth mode," Mr. Pridham says. "The shortage of applications isn't our greatest challenge - it's space in which to place the students."
Two new programs will be added to the IT department this fall, bringing the total up to 11.
Mr. Pridham believes the hands-on nature of college makes its IT programs more appealing to students. Additionally, upon realizing the demographic of young Canadians was lower than in previous years, the college realized it needed to look elsewhere for students.
Ten per cent of Algonquin's IT department is made up of international students. This, on top of the college's focus on co-op placements, explains in part how Algonquin dodged the bullet, Mr. Pridham says.
What high schoolers think of IT
In 2009, the Conference Board of Canada set out to discover why so few students choose careers in IT. Researchers spoke with more than 1,000 Grade 9 and 10
students in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. They found:
• 36 per cent of students say IT appeals to them as a job or career option
• 10 per cent say IT is unappealing
• 34 per cent believe IT jobs are difficult and complex (versus 16 per cent who see them as straightforward)
• 31 per cent believe IT jobs are not "fun" (versus 20 per cent who think they are "fun")
• Boys are more than twice as likely to view IT as appealing (41 per cent) than unappealing (16 per cent), whereas 32 per cent of girls view IT as appealing and 25 per cent view IT as unappealing